“I feel I have brought back a classical style to the world of black and white art photography. I believe in beautiful things and I feel through my art I am capturing beauty in my camera lens.” -George Forss

$4 photos

George Forss had many jobs — Good Humor Man, working on an assembly line, construction worker and as a Linotype operator setting type for publications. By 1975 he chose to become a self-taught photographer to, in his words, “pursue my dream and become a full-time professional art photographer.”

He couldn’t afford to buy a car so he packed his heavy equipment onto his bike to find places to photograph while working as a bike messenger. In the evenings back home in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, he developed his film and made prints so he got up each morning and “hit the street again as a peddler to sell my work for as little as $4 a print.”

Like so many street photographers of the time, he would sell black and white prints of the Empire State Building and Central Park. He was a street peddler working to make a dollar or two.

New York’s finest moments

George Forss used an Exakta camera, a Canon camera and a homemade box camera. He found the most beautiful New York moments and captured them on film. One of his most iconic is the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth II passing in front of the World Trade Center twin towers. Another is of the Statue of Liberty saluting the twin towers and the New York skyline emerging from the mist (opening photo, top row first and second images).

“This isn’t me”

On Photography: George Forss, 1941-2021
George Forss by David Douglas Duncan c. 1984

In 1980, Forss was selling his work near Grand Central Station on 45th Street when the well-known photojournalist, David Douglas Duncan happened by his street display. He was stunned and taken by the masterpieces he saw there. Duncan said later that he mistook the work for that of Ansel Adams. He went on to say, “Ansel never shot New York! So who’s the photographer?”

Duncan showed the 14 prints he had bought to his friends at Life. He recalls them saying, “My God, David, you’re really getting good.” He replied, “Fellows, this isn’t me. This is George Forss.”

Ansel Adams, Gordon Parks, Gjon Mili, Ernst Haas and Yousuf Karsh shared his enthusiasm for the work.

Duncan had been a staff photographer for Life magazine. He championed and promoted the street photographer’s work which resulted in McGraw-Hill publishing the book “New York/New York: Masterworks of a Street Peddler.” The book’s jacket had Forss’s Rocket Thrower along with words of praise from Henri Cartier-Bresson, Norman Mailer and others. Duncan wrote the in the introduction “Astonishment, disbelief, excitement, confusion and admiration held me captive while my eyes swept the vendor’s display of prints on a sidewalk.”

Sources: Brooklyn Museum, New York Times, New York Times 3/26/1984, Park Slope Gallery. Photographs are ©George Forss except as noted.